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Republicans Avoid a Political Pickett’s Charge

Two-and-a-half weeks ago I wrote a post urging Republicans to back away from a confrontation with President Obama over raising the debt ceiling and warning them against engaging in high-profile confrontations and brinksmanship except on the most favorable terrain.

I was therefore quite relieved when Republicans announced that this week they will propose extending the federal debt limit by three months while also requiring that both the House and the Senate pass a budget for the next fiscal year. If either chamber failed to adopt a budget by April 15, that chamber’s members would then have their congressional pay withheld.

As the Wall Street Journal put it,

The move represents the clearest sign yet Republicans are backing away from using the debt ceiling as the battlefield for their next budget fight with President Barack Obama. It’s also evidence of what top GOP leaders have been hinting in recent weeks: that the recurring cycle of fiscal crises isn’t helping the party politically, failing to give them substantive victories while sticking them with political blame… the concession indicates that GOP leaders would prefer to wage a budget fight with the White House on different and less fraught grounds: the automatic spending cuts that take effect on March 1 and a government-funding measure that expires weeks later.

This is the triumph of prudence and common sense. Republicans decided that Pickett’s Charge should remain a Civil War reference, not a political blueprint for the GOP.

It’s dawning on Republicans that it’s impossible for them to govern from the House. Nor are they in any position to extract large concessions from the president. It simply isn’t worthwhile for Republicans in this context to press for deep spending cuts and entitlement reforms when no such things will be forthcoming. To have pushed for a high-stakes showdown on raising the debt ceiling would have had very damaging political consequences for Republicans. They would have emerged from the battle looking ideological and irresponsible one the one hand (for forcing the fight), and weak and unprincipled on the other (for caving in).

During this political season, Republicans need to demonstrate patience and care. They need to avoid the traps being laid for them by the president. And they need to offer proposals (like the one House Republicans have) that are measured and realistic, politically intelligent, defensible and difficult to caricature.

Remember: President Obama’s aim is to portray House Republicans as extreme to the point of being nihilistic. His hope is to go to the country in 2014 and blame the GOP for standing in the way of reasonable proposals and progress. Republicans, on the other hand, need to point out that the House has been the responsible chamber, passing budgets on time and annually, while the Senate (controlled by Democrats) is acting in a wildly irresponsible and lawless fashion (for example, not passing a budget in nearly four years).

There is an intense battle over narratives taking place–and Republicans, in pulling back from an intense, high-stakes, down-to-the-wire battle with Obama over raising the debt ceiling, have avoided a huge setback. 

This isn’t all they need to do, of course–but Do No Harm is not a bad starting point. 



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